The nearly men
Despite another crucial victory for a resurgent Manchester United the side’s inconsistencies are clear. Milan posed a significant challenge for a United side still finding its feet on the European stage this season on Wednesday. But the test, met with endeavour, demonstrated a lack of quality expected of prospective European champions. Wayne Rooney noticed.
Rooney, now United’s undoubted leader on the pitch, offered up rare public criticism of his team-mates after the Reds’ victory over Milan. Some might consider it rash but United’s 25-goal marksman has earned the right to criticise.
He also hit the right note.
“I was very frustrated in the first half with a lot of things,” Rooney said, whose two goals in Milan helped United stretch an unbeaten European run to 26 away matches
“Some people were not doing their jobs right and I let my feelings be known. We learnt from that and won the game, which I am delighted about.”
There’s no doubt that the verbal assault was aimed – in part at least – at Portuguese winger Nani, who struggled to offer any conviction to United’s attack.
Although Nani has played well in recent weeks, the winger seemed overwhelmed by the occasion and his inevitable substitution was the catalyst for United’s eventual victory.
Nani’s replacement, Antonio Valencia, can count himself unlucky not to command a regular starting place following a promising début season with the club.
But the former-Wigan winger’s presence was warmly received on the pitch by his team-mates, who sought out the Ecuadorian as United aimed to change the game in the last half-hour.
Valencia went on to create both a goal and further chances for Rooney in an excellent substitute performance in Milan.
Elsewhere United struggled for consistency, despite the 3-1 win. Youngster Rafael had a troubled night, with Ronaldinho finding his compatriot seemingly star-struck. While it bodes well that Rafael recovered his composure to put in a disciplined second-half performance, the Brazilian needs to learn fast.
Likewise Johnny Evans was uneasy at the prospect of tackling players he no doubt once idolised.
United’s midfield, charged with eliminating the threat of Milan’s pensioners, David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini, tended towards wastefulness.
Darren Fletcher covered acres of ground and Paul Scholes doubled his usual work-rate. Meanwhile, Michael Carrick and Ji-Sung Park were the unfortunate victims of a tactical system designed to limit Milan’s possession.
It’s a lesson learned following last season’s humiliating defeat to Barcelona but Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was lucky Milan is no longer the attacking force that comprehensively beat United in 2007.
Ferguson’s side will gain huge confidence from the victory in the San Siro but that Milan has failed to win a single home game in the Champions League this season is telling.
The Italian side had many chances to rectify that record on Wednesday. United cannot hope to reach the Champions League final in Madrid come May if the side does improve dramatically.
It’s a lesson that Rooney, like Roy Keane before him, will impress upon his team-mates should they fall short of the highest standards again.